We find ourselves in the midst of a heart-wrenching situation: serious allegations of abuse against Sogyal Rinpoche, made by eight current and former students. Most people will agree it’s necessary to seriously look into what gave rise to these accusations and to address any problems identified in the process.
We would like to dedicate this space to understanding what went wrong in Rigpa and to learning from it so similar situations might be prevented in the future—not just in our community but in other Buddhist groups as well.
We believe that this scandal can become the cause of tremendous positive change, if we can join together and learn from it. But this requires that we begin by having an honest and critical look at all the dynamics that created the current situation.
We see “How Did It Happen?” as an open space where an exchange of experiences and ideas can take place. Deep listening, respect, and constructive dialogue are encouraged in the exchanges that take place here.
For this to happen, we must be willing to listen to different perspectives rather than only bang our own drum. One Buddhist practice of compassion that can guide our interactions is to step back for a moment, and put your self in another person’s shoes.
We can certainly see a number of different perspectives in the current situation, including: the people harmed, the teacher, the Rigpa sangha, Buddhist practitioners from all traditions, and the wider community of spiritual practitioners beyond Buddhism.
Putting Yourself In Another Person’s Shoes
Let’s look at each group and what they might be thinking or feeling. If you find it difficult to put yourself in any of these shoes right now, which is understandable, you can acknowledge the feeling, be with the discomfort, and aspire to be able to do so in the future.
There are those who have had painful experiences with Sogyal Rinpoche, which they found damaging to their personal and psychological well-being. They feel strongly that certain behaviors are abusive and go against the ethical standards set forth in Buddhism as well as basic human values.
There’s Sogyal Rinpoche, who has dedicated his whole life to bringing the wisdom and compassion of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West and has benefited thousands and thousands of people. In response to the allegations, he has stated he feels shocked, misunderstood, and unjustly criticized.
Then there are current and former members of the Rigpa community, who represent a spectrum of views, for example:
Many students find it highly distressing to hear others criticize their Guru because, in the Vajrayana tradition, the Guru is seen as a sacred link to enlightenment, which makes for a unique teacher-student relationship. It’s said to see everything the teacher does with pure perception and as a teaching. In this spirit, many consider the alleged behaviors an authentic way of teaching. They find the accusations as unfair and view requests for these behaviors to stop as a threat that might deprive them of opportunities to progress on their path to enlightenment.
On the other hand, there are equally devoted students, who find abusive behaviors unacceptable. They wish to continue to study with Sogyal Rinpoche, but they would like any harmful behaviors to stop. Many feel in deep conflict and find it difficult to reconcile the public and private face of their teacher. Yet they feel an undeniable sense of profound connection and gratitude for all they have received.
Then there are those who passionately speak out against abuse from a place of personal integrity, concerned that further harm could happen — someone might even get gravely injured or die, end up in a mental institution, or commit suicide. They’ve tried to bring their concerns to Sogyal Rinpoche, the Rigpa Management, and other Tibetan Buddhist teachers, with no effect. They felt they had no choice but to make their concerns public. They face anger from a large part of the community. Some disbelieve or discredit them.
This polarization in the community is painful for almost everyone, and could itself tear the organization apart.
As we move on, we can also see there are people in the wider Buddhist community as well as practitioners from other traditions who are saddened to hear about the suffering of those harmed, the alleged ethical transgressions and, especially in light of many previous scandals, how this crisis may damage Buddhism and tarnish the positives values it stands for.
Lastly, we can add anyone concerned about human values that will likely be disturbed by these affairs as well.
As we can see, there are many different perspectives that need to be understood in order to find the best way forward.
Many people feel confused, some even flip-flop between the different standpoints, puzzlement, and indifference over the course of a single day. We hope that hearing the different views here will help them reflect, process, and arrive at a clear personal conclusion.
Understanding the various outlooks can also help us process and integrate this experience as a community, which is essential to heal the divide that has occurred and find possible solutions.
What Makes This Situation So Complex?
Abuse allegations can be complicated to prove in any context, but from a worldly point of view, the same laws apply to all organizations, spiritual or not.
The current situation is even more complex, however, since we need to consider the spiritual dimension because some people argue that the alleged behaviors are authentic ways of teaching. Adding further to the complexity, different Tibetan Buddhist teachers have presented what appear to be incompatible views on ethics and the student-teacher relationship.
We have been students of Sogyal Rinpoche for over 30 years. Both of us have received personal training from Sogyal Rinpoche on many occasions, and have experienced behaviors similar to those alleged in the letter of complaint.
At times, we benefited from these direct personal teachings. But overall, we feel it damaged us physically and psychologically. However, we want to say clearly that we don’t blame Sogyal Rinpoche for all our pain because we know we brought deeply embedded wounds and emotional patterns to our spiritual path. Rinpoche’s personal training triggered these patterns in ways that we did not, at the time, have the understanding, skillful means, and support to process them.
Having gone through the personal training ourselves, we understand how repressed feelings and experiences can be like undiffused bombs. These emotional bombs can suddenly detonate and result in abuse accusations, even many years later like has happened periodically in Rigpa over the course of 25 years.
We have found ways to begin to heal our traumatic experiences, turn them into an experience of learning and growth, and come to a place where we continue to appreciate and respect the Buddhist teachings and continue be part of the Rigpa community.
Because of our experience, we can understand and empathize with all the perspectives outlined above, and thus have created this open space for dialogue, healing, and positive change to occur.
Overview of Topics
Some of the topics that will be explored on “How Did It Happen?” include:
Ethics in the Student-Teacher Relationship
- What behaviors are appropriate or not appropriate for a Buddhist teacher, including Asian spiritual masters?
- How are ethics seen differently in the different vehicles of Buddhism, and how do we integrate this understanding?
- How do we understand the explanations of ethics given in relation to the current situation by teachers like Dalai Lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and Mingyur Rinpoche?
- How do we reconcile worldly and spiritual ethics?
Abuse in the Student-Teacher Relationship
- What is abuse in the student-teacher relationship?
- How does abuse happen, what harm does it cause, and how can it be prevented?
- Why do questionable behaviors affect some students negatively but not others?
- Can conditions be created so painful experiences can be seen as opportunities of learning and growth instead of trauma?
- Why do people stay in harmful situations?
- Are there unhealthy community dynamics that create the conditions for harm to take place?
- Do we understand Vajrayana teachings on topics like samaya and pure perception correctly?
- Is there enough understanding of Western culture and the Western psyche in Buddhist communities?
- How can we heal the trauma that occurs in spiritual communities?
- How can abusive experiences be avoided in the future?
- How can understanding the causes of this scandal contribute to preventing similar problems in the future?
The Bigger Picture
- How can authentic spiritual paths survive in the modern world?
- What other challenges need to addressed so the Vajrayana tradition can continue in the West?
- How do we avoid making Buddhism into a watered down, self-help path that does not create the conditions for enlightenment?
Our discussions are not limited to these themes, but will cover anything pertinent to the issue of abuse in spiritual communities and the future of Buddhism in this regard. We welcome your suggestions for other topics to explore. Reach out to us via the Contact Form with your ideas.
Can Something Good Come From This?
The way the community responds to this abuse scandal could become the cause of positive change. If Rigpa successfully creates the conditions for a healthier spiritual community, in which abuse ceases to take place without losing the authenticity of the tradition, it could become a model that benefits other Buddhist Centers and may even inspire spiritual groups from other traditions as well. When we look back in 10 or 20 years maybe we’ll even feel grateful for the learning and growth that came out of this shattering experience.
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